With its historic attachment to songs about cheating, drinking and divorce, country music has generally been regarded as a genre for adults.
But new efforts at using the format to reach younger generations are transforming country into kids’ stuff.
Producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Brett Eldredge) has assembled Homegrown Kids Country, Vol 1 (BBR Music Group/BMG, Dec. 7), a 10-track project that has children ages 7-18 reimagining modern country songs such as “Get Along,” “Road Less Traveled” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Dolly Parton‘s new Dumplin’ soundtrack — with guest appearances by Sia, Mavis Staples and Miranda Lambert — accompanies a Dec. 7 Netflix movie that addresses a chubby teenage girl learning to embrace herself and navigate romantic opportunities. And Thompson Square developed Time to Get Dressed, a recently released book that encourages kids up to age 5 to take command of a morning ritual they’ll engage in the rest of their lives.
Those projects come at a time when a new generation of young country artists is popping up in cultural moments. Twelve-year-old Mason Ramsey joined Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood during the opening monologue at the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 14, and 15-year-old Tegan Marie performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Nov. 22. She also plays the part of Wendy in a production of Peter Pan at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville Dec. 13-23.
In an era when entertainment has grown increasingly crude or violent, and difficult news stories are available onscreen 24/7, the positive messages in some modern country songs have the potential to help offset a bit of the negativity in the environment.
“I just wanted to lift kids up,” says Copperman — who has three children between the ages of 3 and 7 — of Homegrown Kids. “With our climate politically, I know kids don’t know what’s really going on, but they can feel it, and I wanted to plant these little messages of hope in their minds.”
Every generation of kids gets its early training from somewhere, be it Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Mickey Mouse or Dr. Seuss. The singing cowboys in western movies — including Country Music Hall of Fame members Roy Rogers and Gene Autry — once taught lessons of good and evil while laying the groundwork for country. The genre again has the opportunity to help children get a sense of the world and their place in it, in part because of music’s sticky nature.
Copperman’s 3-year-old daughter became so infatuated with “Drunk on a Plane,” a Bentley hit her father produced, that she asked him to sing it every night when he tucked her into bed. She has no idea, of course, what the song is actually about, but the sex-and-alcohol theme will become clear at a later date. Alternately, Copperman discovered that his children pay closer attention to songs when they’re delivered by kids their own age. Thus, he reasoned, it would be ideal to assemble a project that had their peers singing material with messages that they’ll grow to appreciate as they gain awareness.
“It’s planting seeds,” says Copperman. “When these kids hear these songs on the radio driving around with their parents, I don’t think the seed is planted, to be honest. But when they hear kids singing it, it ingrains it deeper into their souls, and they attach to it in a different way.”
That was always a tenet in the Disney corporate model. Successive -generations of children could see themselves in budding Disney stars — from Annette Funicello to Justin Timberlake to Miley Cyrus — and parents have generally trusted the company to incorporate useful life lessons into entertainment that Mom and Dad can appreciate with them.
“One of the things that parents love about our product is that it allows them to connect with their kids,” says Disney Channels Worldwide vp music strategy Phil Guerini, who oversees Radio Disney Country and its terrestrial outlet, KDRC Los Angeles. “They know it’s important to their kids, so this is an entry point.”
For artists, their children are often an entry point into the world of kids’ entertainment. Thompson Square members Keifer and Shawna Thompson gave it scant consideration until they had a son, Cooper, in January 2016. Keifer organically composed a children’s song when he was dressing Cooper, and it led to the Time to Get Dressed book, simultaneously unveiling a new source of creative possibilities.
“It’s different because you’re not worried about radio,” says Keifer. “The only person you have to impress is a 3-year-old kid. You bring out your inner child again. You don’t have to be an adult, and you could just say something stupid and words that don’t even exist, and that’s just really a fun thing about writing kids’ stuff.”
Parton’s soundtrack leans on messages about finding your own place in the world and building confidence in your uniqueness. Though the movie is geared toward kids approaching adulthood, it works as an extension of her Imagination Library, a program that provides inspirational messages to children with free books before they start school.
“We’ve learned a lot from Dolly,” says Copperman, whose own children have signed up for the Imagination Library. He was perhaps influenced by “all these books that Dolly has curated for my children to read with these similar messages of hope.”
Parton’s own father told her that the program is the most important thing she accomplished during her career. And now that he’s a father himself, Keifer understands the importance of including uplifting ideals in children’s entertainment.
“For a lot of kids, it’s not a great time,” he says. “They don’t get the basic things they need — [a lack of] love from their fathers is a huge one I hear over and over again.”
Parton’s Imagination Library and Disney’s empire are signposts for what Copperman and Thompson Square both hope to accomplish. The Thompsons, says Keifer, are plotting more children’s songs and books, along with their adult-targeted country projects. Copperman, meanwhile, aims to turn Homegrown Kids into a twice-a-year series of albums. He’s also creating related TV show concepts that he could pitch to Nickelodeon or Netflix, and working with the Country Music Association’s charitable wing, the CMA Foundation, on a music education component for the project. In turn, Copperman hopes that the songs can embed a community spirit in a generation that faces a series of crises — climate change, overpopulation, mounting debt — in its future.
“As parents, we put [our kids] in front of the TV, and we kind of monitor it,” says Copperman. “But there is so much junk TV … and I feel like maybe this would be my small contribution to kids — to give them positive, impactful, educating lessons.”